My wife and I live here in the neighborhood just down the hill from the church. On clear mornings from our front patio we can see the sun rise. I couldn’t see the sunrise this morning because of the clouds. But even if it were clear I wouldn’t have seen the sun rise today because it was too early.
That will change! As the days get longer and the weather gets nicer I will miss many sunrises because the sun rises earlier and earlier, and I am not a morning person! Over the next few weeks when I get out of bed I will find I’m too late. I will find that the sun has already risen.
As we hear again this morning the story of Jesus’ resurrection we find that the problem with Jesus’ disciples is not that they’re too early. They’re too late! During his short time with them on earth they had been slow to understand his teachings. He seemed always to be on the go. He was out in front, leading them to places they’d never go on their own. You remember two Sundays ago, when Jesus planned to return to his dying friend Lazarus and his disciples said, “Rabbi, your enemies were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” And Thomas—good old Thomas—chimed in–maybe sarcastically, maybe despairing–“Well, let us also go, that we may die with him!” Jesus disciples, it seems, were always slow and usually late. They were always playing catch-up to their Lord.
Two weeks ago there was a column in the Seattle Times by Leonard Pitts titled, Christianity [Is] the Last to Get it Right. Pitts wrote about Richard Stearns, president of World Vision. Eleven years ago, Stearns went to Congress to make confession. He was lobbying for $15 billion for AIDS relief in Africa and the Caribbean. He confessed that he and other Christians had been blinded by moral self-righteousness, unable to encounter the victims of AIDS with compassion, to see them with the eyes of Jesus. Leonard Pitts writes that Stearns’ words offered what he called a “stark illustration of one of the more vexing failings of modern Christianity: its inability to get there on time.”
Now, Matthew tells us that nobody got to Jesus’ tomb on time. Everyone was late. Jesus’ inner circle–the true believers (that’s us!)–were nowhere to be seen! And, when somebody did eventually show up, it was two women! Think of that—not the insiders, not the 12 disciples—but “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary”. Women were considered property; they were second-class citizens. And yet, the closest we come to a faithful response on that first Easter morning—the closest we come to courage—is two women who dare to approach this tomb, this place of danger, death and despair.
And what did they find at that empty tomb? An angel of the Lord, sitting on the stone that had been rolled away! This past week, at Bible study, my good friend Maggie Breen said she imagines the angel sitting on that stone, dangling his feet, with a sly grin on his face. “He’s not here! He has been raised from the dead as he said (told you so!), and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him. This is my message for you.”
We Christians spend a ton of energy, don’t we, proclaiming at Easter that Jesus is risen. But this is only half the angel’s message. The other half is maybe the most important piece: He’s not here; he is going ahead of you!
What is the empty tomb for you? What is that place where you remain stuck, where Jesus is no more? For Richard Stearns and World Vision, it was moral indignation that blinded them to the one who had been raised from the dead. But friends, this is not picking on World Vision, because we who gather here this morning, like World Vision, also run the risk of standing around at the empty tomb, failing to move in the direction the risen Christ has already gone.
The New Testament writers use strong language to warn of the dangers of dawdling at the empty tomb: The author of 2 Timothy writes: Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the author of Titus likewise writes: But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. The problem with controversies is that those at the center of those controversies don’t see them as stupid; we are willing to go to the mat over our controversies! But “stupid,” “senseless,” “unprofitable,” “worthless” is what biblical writers call anything that is a distraction to the gospel; it’s strong language, because there is so much at stake.
Our controversies within and among churches often seem to be fights about morality and rules and doctrine and theology. To be fair, however, they may in fact be a symptom of a much deeper and more universal human problem: the problem of fear. It’s often a lot easier to quarrel over doctrines and theology and “stupid controversies” than to confront our own deepest fears. It is fear that often keeps us at the empty tomb, fear that keeps us from following the risen Christ, the one who has gone ahead of us. But the angel at the empty tomb says, “Do not be afraid! Later, Jesus, too, said to the women, “Do not be afraid”—knowing full well that they were, knowing that we are!
And where does Jesus go? He goes to Galilee! It’s his own backyard. It’s the place he knows. It’s his mission field! It’s home base, from which his followers will scatter across the earth. It’s also kind of a backwater, the kind of place any self-respecting important people would avoid.
Here is the great news of the resurrection story. Not only that Christ is risen, but that he is out ahead of us and already at work in his disciples’ own backyard! We don’t have to start from scratch. In our neighborhoods and communities, Christ is risen and has gone ahead of us and is already at work.
Where is this risen Christ? Later in Matthew’s gospel, his disciples will say, “When did we see you, Lord?” And Jesus’ reply, “In the poor, the stranger, the diseased, the despised, the foreigner, among those whom society calls unclean”—that’s where I was. Jesus is no longer in the past; he’s not in our creeds or doctrines or traditions or controversies. He’s in the face of those whom he came to serve. He’s out ahead of us, preparing the way.
There’s a lot at stake in this Easter story. There’s a lot at stake at the empty tomb. We who acknowledge and confess that we are disciples of Jesus Christ are often late arrivals. We tend to linger too long at the empty tomb—sometimes for years, sometimes for decades, sometimes for centuries. Deaf to the words of God’s messengers, one day we wake up to discover that God is out ahead of us, hard at work even through and among people who don’t believe in Jesus.
The consequences of our lateness have been a source of untold suffering in the world. Because Christians were too late, Africans served as slaves in this country for centuries. Because Christians were late, African-Americans and other minorities have been treated as second-class citizens, even after the end of slavery until the 1950s. Even today, there are those who seem eager to roll back laws that protect the rights of those who have been denied dignity, equality and justice. Because Christians have been late, gay people have been despised and rejected. Because Christians have been late, unnecessary wars and international conflicts have cost the lives of untold millions over the past century alone.
Is this some unavoidable law of nature? Is Leonard Pitts right, that Christians are “the last to get it right?” No–not always. In the midst of our glaring failures many Christians, mostly under the radar, have refused to hang out at the empty tomb. They have heard the angel’s voice and quietly, faithfully, courageously–sometimes at great cost–have followed the risen Christ to Galilee, where he is already hard at work.
To the extent that we get it right in Galilee—in these mission laboratories we call “home”—among Christians and non-Christians; to the extent that we are able to steer clear of stupid and senseless controversies, we become better prepared for a time when the stakes may be much higher, and much more will be required of us.
Dear friends in Christ, every day the sun rises. Sometimes, if it’s cloudy, we have a hard time seeing it. But be assured, behind those hills, every day the sun rises. Just as surely, we proclaim this day that the Son is risen. He is risen indeed! He’s not here. He’s gone ahead of us…to Galilee—and bids us follow! Alleluia!